Throwing a party on Super Bowl Sunday is one of America’s most enduring social traditions. According to a report from Statista, it is the second-largest day for food and alcohol consumption behind Thanksgiving. With an estimated 188.5 million people watching the game and participating in household parties, consumers are expected to spend more than $15 billion on food, alcohol, and other party supplies. More than one billion chicken wings will be consumed and pizza companies will see a 350 percent spike in business. In short, Super Bowl parties are a lot of fun.
But what happens when your partygoers have a little too much fun? The combination of food, alcohol, and fan passion can sometimes lead to unintended calamities, which can include everything from damaged personal possessions to drunk-driving accidents.
“If you’re going to host a Super Bowl party the most important thing you can do is prepare in advance for possible problems that may arise,” says personal injury attorney Marc Lamber. “You’re the quarterback of your party, so make sure it runs smoothly and safely.”
Social-host liability laws
According to Lamber, social-host liability laws apply to anyone who hosts a social event, party, or gathering of any kind where alcohol is served, all of which fall under a different legal category than a vendor of alcohol or an establishment with a liquor license.
“Most states hold a social host civilly responsible if the host serves or furnishes alcohol to someone under the lawful drinking age, and that person then gets in a car and hurts someone or worse,” says Lamber. “If a social host serves someone who is of lawful drinking age and that person gets in a vehicle and injures someone, or worse, then different states have different laws.”
According to Nolo.com, social-host liability laws fall into two categories: first-party laws and third-party laws.
A first-party social-host liability law covers injuries or damages suffered by the person who was served the alcoholic drinks. This would include a case where someone got drunk, left your house, and then ran into a tree down the block. A first-party law would allow them to sue you personally for their injuries.
However, most states don’t allow this kind of liability because the person who accepted the drinks was primarily negligent for himself or herself to overindulge, leaving you largely off the hook.
“Some states, like Arizona for instance, afford the social host civil immunity,” says Lamber. “Other states do not. Bottom line, it’s about being responsible and doing the right thing.”
There’s one big exception to first-party liability, and that’s when it comes to minors. In the case of serving alcohol to someone underage, you could absolutely be held responsible for first-party claims.
Meanwhile, third-party social-host liability laws state that if someone other than the person you served is injured or suffers damages, you also carry liability.
So, for example, in this kind of case let’s say a drunk guest leaves and runs into your neighbor’s car as they are pulling into their driveway. In states with third-party laws, the guest couldn’t sue you, but your neighbor could.
The details of each state’s law vary, though. For example, some states limit your liability to cases of recklessness, or where you intentionally or knowingly over-served someone. In other states, in addition to your liability for recklessness, you are also held liable in cases of negligence, or where you may not have directly known someone was intoxicated, but you should have known better than to continue to serve them.
“As in all negligence cases, there must be a legal duty that is breached in order for an injured person to recover,” says Vermont-based personal injury attorney Drew Palcsik. “This is an area of law that is constantly developing and is very fact specific. For instance, the Vermont Supreme Court has found that social hosts have a common law duty to others where it is foreseeable that someone might leave their home intoxicated and get into an automobile and cause a wreck. Bottom line: Everyone should look into the specifics of their state before hosting a Super Bowl party.”
FindLaw is a great resource for this, as they list some of the details of each state’s laws. Moreover, here are states with social host liability laws applicable to guests of all ages:
- New Jersey
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
And here are states with social host liability laws applicable only to minors:
- New Hampshire
What about insurance?
In addition to knowing the legal ins and outs of throwing a Super Bowl party, hosts should also know what their insurance may or may not cover in the event of an accident, either in the home or after someone leaves.
“First of all, if you serve alcohol to someone under the lawful drinking age and they cause an auto accident, injuring someone, you may not have insurance coverage,” says Lamber. “Typically, most policies will have exemptions for criminal acts—for instance, serving a minor—and other intentional acts. The easy solution here, of course, is to not serve or furnish alcohol to those under the lawful drinking age.”
But what about accidents caused by those who are legally allowed to drink alcohol? According to Ohio-based insurance broker P.J. Miller, this is where things “get a little stickier.”
According to Miller, the first thing a host needs to check are his or her homeowner insurance liability limits, which typically fall between $100,000 and $300,000. After considering the value of your home and other assets, Miller suggests perhaps increasing the liability limit before hosting a large event like a Super Bowl party.
What’s more, homeowners can also purchase an umbrella policy, which offers additional financial protection if the host maxes out his or her standard liability limit. Most umbrella policies can add $1 million in liability coverage over and above what the homeowner’s policy offers, and that extra coverage costs only a few hundred dollars a year.
“Homeowner policies—and hopefully the personal umbrella that you have—should provide ‘Host Liquor Liability,’ which means you didn’t sell the beer to your guests, you merely provided it,” says Miller. “Keep in mind that gross negligence can not only be an insurance claim, it can also carry with it some civil and criminal implications. A personal umbrella policy would offer broader coverage and would also give you coverage for renting a location to hold a party where the homeowner’s policy coverage would be very limited.”
Of course there are myriad non-alcohol-related accidents that may arise before, during, or after a Super Bowl party, in which case Miller says a typical homeowner policy should provide adequate coverage.
“For example, someone might trip and fall on an icy sidewalk leading to your house, guests might choke on food, or there might be fights between guests resulting in broken items,” says Miller. “Typically, homeowner policies offer some protection for these types of non-alcohol induced accidents, but you might want to carefully review your policy just to be sure.”
In the spirit of safe, responsible fun, the non-profit Insurance Information Institute offers a few common-sense tips for limiting your liability as you prepare to host that next big party:
- Host the party at an off-site venue, such as a restaurant or bar that is licensed to serve the alcohol
- Hire a professional bartender who is trained at spotting intoxicated people
- Encourage everyone to have a designated driver who will refrain from drinking altogether and then is responsible for getting people home safely
- Stay (relatively) sober – as the host, you will make better decisions if you aren’t intoxicated yourself
- Serve food and have non-alcoholic beverages available for your guests
- Don’t rush to refill your guests’ drinks or pressure them to drink more than they are comfortable with
- Call a cab or a rideshare for anyone who is too drunk or tired to safely drive home
- Offer your couch and let them sleep it off at your home if all else fails
“None of this should scare you off from hosting a party, but be sure to review your homeowner’s policy to understand what it will and will not cover in the instance of an accident,” says Miller.